The Secret Lives of Owls
Some of the biggest myths about these formidable predatorsdispelled.
Ellie Martin Cliffe
My love affair with owls bloomed slowly. In fact, until recently, they terrified meI wanted to be nowhere near their hooked beaks, sharp talons and wide eyes. My phobia peaked when I shared a campsite with a family of eastern screech-owls and imagined that an attack was imminent. But a certain book about young wizards with pet owls piqued my curiosity, and I soon became completely enamored of these birds.
Owls live on every continent except Antarctica. What’s more, from France to Australia, many of our ancestors were intrigued enough to include wise or ominous owls in their legends. No matter what role they’ve played in human minds, owls have led a secret life all their ownuntil now. We’re setting the record straight.
Myth 1- All owls are nocturnal.
Although horror movies suggest that owls are active exclusively at night, this just isn’t the case. Some, including great gray and northern hawk owls, are diurnal, meaning they’re awake during the day. If food is scarce, owls hunt around the clock. In times of plenty, they cache their prey by stashing extra in or around nests.
Myth 2- Male and female owls are identical.
Plumage is the same in most species, but some variations occur. Female snowy and barn owls have more dark spots than the males. Size is another story. Females are almost always bigger than males, surpassing them by as much as 40 percent in some species. The reason is a bit of a mystery, but most ornithologists agree that a bigger body allows for better nest protection as well as greater egg production.
Myth 3- Owls see in complete darkness.
Huge eyes do make for excellent vision in low light, but owls can’t see in the dark. Generally, diurnal owls use their eyesight more than nocturnal ones, and for most, sight is secondary to hearing. An owl’s facial disk, resembling a satellite dish with funnellike indentations around each eye, helps channel the quietest of sounds to its ears. Once the owl pinpoints the prey’s location, it stealthily flies toward the sound, adjusting its flight path to accommodate obstacles and keeping its face pointed at its destination. Then, snap! The owl’s talons lock around its next meal.
Myth 4- Owls hate water.
In reality, many species have been observed bathing and drinking in streams and lakes, and some smaller ones have even been spotted in birdbaths. Waterlogged feathers can make flying difficult, so, like most birds, owls are armed with a gland that releases a protective oily substance distributed while preening.
Myth 5- All owls live in the woods.
While many species do live in forests, several speciesshort-eared and snowy owls includedmake their homes in more open landscapes. The grassland-dwelling burrowing owl is the single North American species that actually lives underground. Some owls aren’t particular about where they nest: Elf owls take up residence in cacti, agave stalks and even utility poles, while barn owls roost in a variety of buildings. Of course, habitat determines diet, too, so although rodents are the most popular prey, owls also hunt insects, fish, reptiles and other birds.
My concern about being attacked wasn’t completely off base. Owls can be quite territorial. Luckily, learning how to respect them is all it takes to avoid a run-in. On future camping trips, I’ll welcome the sounds of owls in the trees, though I’ll sleep best if theyand their dinnersstay a few sites away.